WASHINGTON – Two days after assuming the duties of president, a fresh-faced, black-haired Barack Obama issued an executive order to close the U.S. detention facility Guantanamo Bay within a year.
“We are not, as I said in the inauguration, going to continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals,” Obama said after signing the order on Jan. 22, 2009.
As a graying Obama prepares for his final State of the Union speech on Tuesday, protesters congregated in front of the White House to demonstrate against the continuing operation of Guantanamo Bay. Obama has now served as president for seven years, and Monday marked the 14th anniversary of Guantanamo’s opening.
On a cold January afternoon, a couple of dozen protesters stood silently in orange jumpsuits with black bags pulled over their faces as several activists addressed the crowd.
“Our country’s justice system has been sleeping on Guantanamo for 14 years,” said Zainab Chaundry, a board member for Interfaith Action for Human Rights. “It is time to shake it awake.”
A block away, think tank New America marked the occasion by hosting a panel of experts to discuss what it will take to close Guantanamo and what a timeline for that process would look like.
British journalist Andrew Worthington spoke at both events. He passionately called for the facility’s closing in front of the White House, and later explained at the panel discussion how Guantanamo remained open.
“Obama had about 66 men approved for release when he came into office, and he could have released them all immediately,” Worthington said. “But he didn’t, so he left himself open to attacks from the Republicans, and then got a bit overwhelmed.”
His sentiment was echoed by the other panelists and the protesters. Most said the president is trying to do the right thing, but they are frustrated by the slow progress.
Karen J. Greenberg and Thomas Wilner, who spoke at New America, were split on whether the Obama administration would close Guantanamo. Greenberg, the director of Fordham University’s Center on National Security, said she believes the president will close the facility. Wilner, a lawyer who has fought for the right to trial for Guantanamo detainees, is less convinced.
“I’m not confident that Obama will close it before the end of his term,” Wilner said. “It’s very easy to stir up passions against it.”
Though the two events were not carried out in coordination, both speakers and protesters shared the belief that Guantanamo should be closed and that only prisoners who are convicted in United States Courts, not military commissions, should remain in custody.
Over the past couple days, cities around the country have marked the anniversary with protests. On Saturday, about 60 people marched on the United States Southern Command in Doral, Fla., according to the Miami Herald. On Sunday, protests were held in Huntington Beach, Calif.; Northampton, Mass., and the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Protests were scheduled on Monday in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Honolulu, London and Portland. Ore.
At the White House, protesters sang, recited poetry and chanted, “Shut it down!” They took turns giving their definitions of home, held up pictures of detainees and prayed for change.
Jeremy Varon, a history professor at the New School in New York who helped organize the event, held a view of the president echoed by many protesters.
“I’m hopeful but not optimistic,” Varon said, adding that despite efforts by Congress to stop the facility’s closure, he felt the decision was in Obama’s hands. “It was opened by executive decision, so it should be closed by executive decision.”
Reach reporter Luke Torrance at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
Download photos: Guantanamo.zip